Warrior cults seem to be an engrained part of our collective historical psyche. Ever since the first tribes realized taking your neighbors’ possessions was easier than making them yourselves, the warrior has been fetishized by society.
This is understandable. Warriors defend and protect as well as raid others, and the importance of maintained a fighting force for either reason led to communities devoting large portions of their resources to maintaining such individuals. Warriors were essentially the first arms race in human history.
These warriors also stood apart from society. This was partly because, most of the time, they were a parasitic part of the community, absorbing resources but remaining themselves inactive. But it was also because of the nature of their profession. These were murderers.
And so they were kept apart, half shunned by their communities, half held in awe and reverence for doing what was necessary and what nobody else could do. This fetishization extended right down to the individual (single combat being, after all, an extremely efficient way for conflicts to be resolved) and the role of a “warrior” gathered a mystique.
Throughout history, we have seen elite warrior classes who stand aside from their societies, and these are often given animal characteristics, all part of this mythos. European warriors often assumed the aspect of the Bear, or the Wolf, apex predators.
And for the Aztecs, there was the Eagle and the Jaguar.
Aztec Animal Warriors
The Aztecs evoked two separate and entirely different predators for their two classes of specialist warriors but in honesty both operated in similar ways, there even being a collective name for both: cuāuhocēlōtl. These were the special forces of the Aztec Empire, and they had very specific duties.
The Eagle Warriors and the Jaguar Warriors were two different castes, each adopting the appearance of their animal totem. Both were the shock infantry troops of the Aztec tasked with taking prisoners for Aztec human sacrifices.
Both were drawn from the upper echelons of Aztec society, as if often the case in a similar manner to medieval knights. But interestingly commoners could also be raised to become an Eagle Warrior: Aztec realpolitik had made this a meritocracy.
Aztec society was extremely hierarchical, with the very highest claiming to be descended from semi-mythical figures from out of the Aztec past. This earlier civilization, the Toltecs, were held in high regard by the Aztecs: their architecture was copied, their heroes were legendary, and of course all Aztec kings wanted some of the reflected glory.
So, for an elite Eagle or Jaguar Warrior to have been born a commoner was a tacit admission by the Aztec that your birth alone does not decide your ultimate merit. Faced with the brutal realities of the battlefield, they wanted the best fighters they could gather and to hell with the Toltec connection.
Nevertheless, most were nobility and drawn from the ranks of the sons of the Aztec leadership. Trained from an early age, only the best fighters would be chosen to become an Eagle or Jaguar warrior.
But why the Eagle and the Jaguar, apart from the obvious associations of power, strength and predatory instinct? These two were chosen for a specific Aztec legend.
In Aztec mythology, there is the story of two gods who selflessly sacrificed themselves to ignite the Sun and bring life to all. Tecuciztecatl, the Lord of Snails, and Nanahuatzin, the Lord of Zits (honestly) threw themselves into the fire and emerged as a Jaguar and an Eagle.
And in this story we understand Aztec thinking about their elite warriors. They stand apart, with the best clothing, weapons, food and adornments not because of their noble born wealth and status.
They stand apart because they stand willing to sacrifice everything for the good of their community.
Top Image: Aztec Eagle and Jaguar Warriors, as documented by the Spanish invaders. Source: Unknown tlacuilo; Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green